Monday, July 4, 2016

Rethinking the Declaration of Independence

 Jefferson 3

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1825 that he intended the Declaration of Independence to be “an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.” Yet, he did not propose the Declaration should “find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of….” The last statement is the clearest articulation of what Jefferson and other members of the founding generation thought of the Declaration.

It was a restatement of the rights of Englishmen, modeled in large part by previous works of English and American law. The Declaration was not a radical document or a deviation from accepted constitutional norms, as the famous historian Gordon Wood suggests. But the idea that Jefferson and other founders would be modern liberals persists, and that is why Barack Obama can argue with a straight face that he is following the founding documents of the United States. Such thinking needs a “radical” correction, and a better understanding of the Declaration is the key.

In 1100, King Henry I of England agreed to restrictions on his power through the Charter of Liberties. The English barons rejected absolute authority and sought to preserve traditional decentralized “government.” Just over one hundred years later, King John was forced again by the English nobles to sign the Magna Charta. The “Great Charter,” as it is known in English, declared that the king was not above the law—making him essentially equal to the nobles—and it resisted the trend toward centralization in England. Though on the books, the Magna Charta was often ignored by more powerful English monarchs, but several of its provisions became the basis of English common law, most notably the writ of habeas corpus.


  1. I found this on the inter-web yesterday.
    From Calvin Coolidge. He speaks of The Declaration of Independence and other founding documents. This is so brilliant and yet so basic and self evidently true. Beware anyone that would argue this point.

    “It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning cannot be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.”

    1. Excellent. Thanks.

  2. Happy 4th of July

    Hi my name is Sam and I think you have a really cool site. I run The Last Tradition blog and I was wondering if you’d be interested in a blog roll exchange? Check me out and if you like what you see I hope you add me to your blog roll. I’ll gladly do likewise.

    1. I would be happy to post articles of yours, but I only list Southern sites on my sidebar. Thank you.